I am probably watching soccer with the wrong person.
As my friend D. and I walk through the 40-degree heat of downtown Belgrade, where she grew up and returns in the summers, I spot a building-high vertical banner of an enthusiastic, fit young man in body paint hawking soda. “Refresh Your World!” it implores.
I smile, reach for my camera and snap a shot. D. regards the advertisement, and me, bemusedly. “I don’t think he’s Serbian,” she decides. “He looks like someone who’s famous for something somewhere else.”
I gape at her. “That’s Messi.” Pause for response. “He’s, like, really well-known.”
There is no reason for her to recognize his face, I suppose, but since his name is included in a definite large typeface, I am a little surprised that there is not the faintest glimmer of recognition. “Oh,” she says.
But at least I’ve persuaded her to come out and watch the World Cup at all. When I first raised the possibility, as we drove home from the airport, she acted horrified. “Soccer fans are the worst people!” She went on to describe how competing soccer clubs commit acts of violence against each other and the general population. “They commit the worst political violence and all kinds of corruption.” I began to wonder if I had come to the wrong place to immerse myself in local soccer culture.
This impression was not improved the next day when, as we walked from her home to the bus stop, we passed a soccer stadium. “That’s Arkan,” she said, pointing to the mural on the outside wall.
She tells me he formed a paramilitary group out of his soccer club and massacred Bosnian Muslims. “Why is his picture still up?” I ask, uncomprehending. She shrugs. “It’s his stadium.”
I don’t want to have this impression, because Serbia’s general reputation in the American media is so Manichaean, so unamenable to the idea that a former government known for its strategy of ethnic cleansing could exist alongside a hospitable and generous population. D’s husband, an American, reports that U.S. coverage of the Serbia-Ghana match makes frequent reference to Serbs’ inherently violent natures. But — political correctness aside — I am prepared for my World Cup viewing experience to be heated and political affair. I brace myself for rioting, strong emotions, displays of nationalism. Whatever it is, it will be ethnographically fascinating.
I convince D. that watching Serbia play Ghana is an important cultural experience that I should have while in her homeland, and she reluctantly agrees. We end up at a sidewalk cafe off the Knez Mihajlova, Belgrade’s main pedestrian drag, where earlier that day I met a young fellow and his albino Burmese python named Vanilla Rose. Groups of people have assembled to drink coffee and beer and eat ice cream while watching the match on TVs that have been set up outdoors. A man walks around, selling Serbian flags and other paraphernalia, but no one seems to be buying.
D. and I order cold Nescafes and espresso and take in our surroundings. We observe, first, that there are only three women at the cafe and we are two of them. We watch the game. “What’s wrong with the TV? Why is it making that noise?” D. asks. (This was before “vuvuzela” became part of our vocabulary.) I ask her how balanced the commentary is, and she responds “Not very.” The commentators praise the beauty of the Serbian players’ game and say little about the Ghanaians. Whenever the Serbian team messes up, the men in the café shout, throw up their arms in frustration, hands behind their heads and elbows aloft. When Žigić misses an easy goal, someone shouts “Debilu idi ubi se!” which apparently means, “You idiot. Go kill yourself!” (They shout other things, too, but they are not appropriate to repeat here.) These are not the passionate protestations of fanatics, but the irritated mutterings of the perpetually disappointed. The match ends, Serbia having lost 1-0. The spectators pay their bills and slink off quietly and resignedly.
What, no righteous anger? No anti-Ghana sentiment? Later, I mention this to another friend, M., who stayed home with his dad to watch the match. “This is our national tradition,” he explains calmly. “We always peform really well in the qualifiers, and then f— it up when it matters.” He looks forward to watching Serbia play Germany this week: “We lost to Ghana. And Germany is, like, 600 times better.”